Dunagin: Long obit sparks memories

By CHARLES DUNAGIN GUEST COLUMNIST,

Jimmy McDowell’s obituary took up half a page in Sunday’s Clarion-Ledger, and he would have liked it that way.

Good for his family or whoever paid for the lengthy piece. I read every word of it. Back when McDowell and I worked on the same newspaper and I was writing obits, I probably would have made it a bit shorter. But it’s still a good read.

For those who didn’t read it or are unfamiliar with the life and times of James Lyman “Mississippi Red” McDowell Jr., he was a sports writer, columnist, publicist and promoter extraordinaire. He died March 5 at the age of 93.

McDowell’s resume was as long as his obit. He worked as sports editor and columnist for newspapers in Mississippi, Memphis and New Jersey. He was a former sports information director at what is now the University of Southern Mississippi. His obit notes that he co-founded the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and was publicity director and later executive director of the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame.

I  met McDowell on my first day on the job at the Jackson State-Times in 1957 and commiserated with him on our last day at the newspaper.

Twenty-one and with a journalism degree from Ole Miss in 1957, it was my first newspaper job, and I didn’t know much about the craft.

Dr. Will Norton, dean of the Ole Miss Journalism School,  in a recent conversation, asked me why in the world I chose to work for the State-Times, a newspaper that survived only seven years in competition with the Hederman-owned Clarion-Ledger and Jackson Daily News.

Because they offered me a job was my honest reply. I should have added that I learned more about being a journalist in six months at the State-Times than in three and a half years at Ole Miss.

McDowell, who had already been sports editor in Meridian and the Jackson Daily News, was one of the stars of the State-Times staff at the time I joined it.

He wasn’t my boss. I worked under City Editor George Harmon who, like McDowell, was an Ole Miss graduate with red hair who had come to the State-Times from the Jackson Daily News. Harmon also had worked for the Memphis Commercial Appeal which, at the time, put a lot of stock in publishing good obituaries.

Writing obits was among my first assignments, and Harmon instilled in me the necessity of doing them right. That was when newspapers published complete obituaries, written by staff members, free of charge.

I understand why newspapers charge for them these days and allow families to word them anyway they like, but I still like the old style better.

Harmon, in one of several chewing outs I received, instilled in me the philosophy that a reporter should never “assume” anything in writing a story when I told him I assumed something was accurate. Check it out was his orders.

Although my job was news, I and a few other reporters on the staff were called on to help the sports department cover high school football games in the fall.

One of my memorable ones was going to Brookhaven with the assistant sports editor to cover a game in which Brookhaven’s great team of either 1957 or 1958 clobbered an opponent.

Brookhaven that year had the best high school football team in the state. Several college bound athletes, including Lance Alworth and Ralph Smith who went on to collegiate and pro football fame, were on the team.

I was assigned to take pictures of the game, and a camera and identification was usually all it took to get free admission. But Brookhaven had a hard-nosed principal, W.L. Roach, who insisted that I had to pay admission which I did. Years later, when Ralph Smith and I became friends at Fernwood Country Club, he liked to joke about Mr. Roach letting me in the game with my camera and whatever the price of admission was in those days.

Five years after I started work at the State-Times, Harmon had departed,  I was then the city editor and McDowell was still sports editor.

At the beginning of one work day, McDowell, I and other department heads were summoned to a meeting in the publisher’s office.

Going in, McDowell whispered to me that one of the guys in the back shop had told him Dumas Milner, a businessman who at the time controlled the stock of the newspaper, would be there and the “old man” — being the publisher — was going to “get the ax."

Milner was there all right, but the old man didn’t get the ax. The rest of us did, as Milner, who had made a deal with the Hedermans to buy the State-Times circulation rolls and equipment for an undisclosed price, announced he was shutting down the newspaper that day.

The “old man” and maybe one or two in the accounting office got jobs in one of Milner’s other enterprises. The rest of us scattered elsewhere.

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